A host of musicians, actors and sports stars have joined up with businesses and environmental groups in what they hope will be a successful push to get more people to ditch meat, fish and dairy in the new year.
Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Sir Paul McCartney, Ricky Gervais, Lily Cole and Alan Cumming have all signed a letter calling for people to change their diet for “Veganuary” next month. “We cannot tackle climate change while we farm and eat animals on an industrial scale”, the open letter written by the Veganuary association says.
Other signatories include Chris Packham, the environmental campaigner and TV presenter, Smiths guitarist Johnny Marr, cricketer Jason Gillespie, businesswoman Deborah Meaden and comedians John Bishop, Sara Pascoe and Jon Richardson.
Packham said there was a clear link between the climate crisis, large-scale meat-eating and coronavirus. “This virus leapt from animals into us as Sars, Ebola and HIV did – all because we were abusing the natural environment and the animals that live there,” he told the Observer. “So nature has taught us a very harsh and cold lesson. If we don’t start understanding that we are all connected implicitly to nature, and that what we eat impacts on nature, we’re in deep trouble. That’s why the environmental aspect of veganism or vegetarianism – or anyone changing their diet – has come to the forefront.”
Veganuary’s organisers hope to persuade 500,000 people to try veganism in January. Some 350,000 took part last year.
Global meat sales had begun to decline in 2019, after rising from around 71 million tonnes a year in 1961 to 340 million tonnes in 2018, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. In the UK, sales of beef, lamb and pork dropped by up to 4% last Christmas, and supermarkets cater for rising numbers of “flexitarians” – those who cut back on meat.
However, lockdown has fuelled a boom in meat consumption. According to researcher Kantar, sales of turkeys were up 36% on last year, and sales of red meat and poultry grew by more than 10% each month until September.
The Veganuary letter sets out the environmental arguments against meat. “Animal agriculture is responsible for an estimated 14.5% of all human-generated greenhouse gas emissions,” it says. “In recent years, more than 80% of deforestation in Brazil was to graze farmed animals, and still more forests are destroyed to grow crops to feed animals on farms around the world. Deforestation is serious for lots of reasons. It pushes wild species to extinction. It displaces indigenous peoples. It drives climate change. And it brings us in ever closer contact with wild animals and any viruses they may harbour, raising the risk of another pandemic.”
Packham said there was evidence that soya produced in felled Brazilian rainforest had been used to feed chickens sold in UK supermarkets and fast-food outlets: “If you put that chicken in your mouth, you’re connecting yourself very directly with deforestation in South America.”
But ethical eating was difficult even for vegans, he added. “Palm oil has led to the deforestation of Indonesia and Malaysia, and it’s in biscuits, shampoo … it’s frankly everywhere. We each of us consume 8kg to 9kg every year.”
He said the solution was not for the whole population to turn vegan. “The people I call ultra-vegans just want to stop all meat consumption overnight. But that would be no good for meat farmers. It would be no good for our landscapes, where low-intensity, good-quality animal husbandry and livestock farming are actually good for biodiversity. What we need is a transition where we eat less meat and pay more for it so we can put the profit in the farmer’s pocket.”
Toni Vernelli of Veganuary said that while 2020 had brought hardship and heartbreak, it had also brought “an opportunity to change and build a better future”.
“Our united message is one of hope, but we must all act now.”